Breast Reconstruction


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Ten days. Three theme parks. Six rollercoasters. Water slides to scare the pants off you. Three excited kids. One fabulous zoo. And a bit of surgery in between. What a ride! And as I sit here with a glass of bubbly, I am celebrating another milestone in the journey, the return of my B-cup. And it’s important to celebrate our victories, isn’t it. Wetting the booby’s head I said. By the second glass my husband suggested it was more a drowning. Because once again I feel the sheer joy of being alive. For a brief moment post surgery the grief took hold as I realised the extent of the radiation damage. But with my new breast now taking shape, and the anaesthetic out of my system, it was more than I could have hoped for to actually be able to feel my new breast as a part of me. When my daughter accidently bumped me two days post surgery, it took me completely by surprise. Because I felt sensation in a part of me that had not existed this time last week. That blows my mind. The possibilities are incredible, aren’t they.

And this end of the week I can smile as I remember my apprehension pre-surgery. It’s a bit like a rollercoaster, isn’t it. The ups and downs. The waiting, the anticipating. So often the hardest part. And I often wonder why we are conditioned to expect the worst? Because there are so many things, so many situations, we often anticipate or fear that never come to pass, aren’t there. And in those moments before I reached the hospital for my fourth surgery in under two years, it suddenly occurred to me that this could be much easier than I realised…

It dawned on me yesterday that this time next week I will have two breasts again. And I can’t quite believe I have finally come full circle. The end of a long journey. There are mixed emotions. Relief, excitement, guilt, apprehension, an overwhelming sense of being able to finally exhale. Because it feels like I have been holding my breath for just this moment. Last summer, battling the prosthetic I called ‘the jellyfish’ every time I wore my swimmers, I knew I never wanted to experience another summer in this way. Small things, yes. They only got a measly 500 grams from me. But sometimes it’s the small things that give us the most grief, isn’t it.

The birth of the bump my girlfriend called it. Stage one of my reconstruction. An incredible gift, worth every cent. Because the joy this bump has given me in the last six weeks is beyond words. The freedom to embrace my femininity again. The joy of normal clothes. I ditched the prosthetic immediately. And the image of swinging my half kilo bra around my head and wildly letting go, prosthetic and all, like some sort of catapult, delights the wickedness in me. I get a sense of why our foremothers burned their bras.

And the really amazing thing is that even though the reconstruction is not complete my brain seems to have accepted my body as ‘whole’ again. I am fascinated by the workings of the mind, the brain in action. Proprioception they call it. That ability we have to recognise ourselves in space. Before, I was so keenly aware of the deficit. Funny, I never hated the scar, I hated the absence of me. But this bump, in all its rawness, has been accepted by my brain as ‘me’ and the sense of wholeness in my quieter moments brings tears of joy.

But the guilt I feel? Because in some ways it is just a small thing. Just a breast. Hidden away, no-one need ever know. I saw a man at the shops in a wheelchair with an amputated leg, and I felt lucky. It’s a strange thing when I work with people facing other challenges, because in listening to their stories, I feel so fortunate. And yet, knowing my story I’ve heard them question their own challenges as being small. But I guess each of us has a story of our own and it’s a wonderful thing when we can feel fortunate in the face of it, isn’t it…

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Note to self: next time be very vague about surgery information when boarding a flight.

Irritated as hell I was yesterday. Arriving at the check in counter 3 days after surgery, busting to get home to my family, I simply asked for a bit of help lifting my carry on luggage into the overhead locker. Due to surgery, I said, couldn’t lift. The smiling, oh too caring, check in chipmunk (at half my age, I don’t think she had much experience of real life) asked about my surgery. As I am a trusting person, I answered honestly. Surgery was Tuesday. ‘What did you have done?’ she asked, feigning caring interest. ‘Breast reconstruction’, I said. ‘Oh, just let me look and see if you can fly’… furious, does not describe how strongly I felt! So she checked her very large manual and decided that I suddenly needed a doctors letter to board the plane. They didn’t tell me that when I booked the bloody ticket. So, happy to take my money, but not happy to let me get home. The airline shall remain nameless – they have been wonderful on other occasions and I am not into slighting. And I understand the need for protection against litigation. I offered to sign a waiver, but that was not acceptable. After consulting her medical advisor they said I needed a letter. So, in 15 minutes I had to get ‘permission’ in writing like a small child to board the aircraft home. So humiliating to have one’s right to exercise their freedom to move around their own country overridden. But as ‘patients’ this often happens, doesn’t it. We suddenly lose our basic human rights to make our own decisions. You can tell it has hit a raw nerve. I mentioned how frustrated I was, because if I hadn’t said anything, she would have been none the wiser. ‘Ah, but you disclosed’ she said. ‘And now I have to act on it’. Only because she led me to it. Duped I would call it. And not quite honest. Leaves a bad taste. Steve mentioned it might help to get it off my chest. I responded with humour. No thanks, I don’t want to get anything more off my chest.

And so with a letter in hand (thank you Dr D), I brought my precious cargo home. Two bumps. And I can’t describe how it feels to have some balance back. To sit in my pyjamas, balanced on both sides. A rounded softness on my right side where for the last year and a half there has just been hard bony ribs. Tears of joy. I keep putting my hand on the roundness, just to experience it again. The hardness has disappeared under this lovely round bump. And it’s only the first stage. I am so delighted. A little bit sore, probably a bit like a footballer after a hard game of rugby. Combined with that delightful sensation of the extreme pressure of your milk coming in on the third day. But nothing a few panadol and a bit of rest can’t handle. ‘Brave’ a woman said on the plane home. Maybe a little of this. But I know I’m in good hands, and with faith and trust, it’s easier to be brave, isn’t it…

I am so deliciously peaceful. A few hours past surgery and I feel good. And excited. My breathing is deep and restful and my hands are warm. And I am basking in this moment. I now officially have two bumps. And though new and raw, I treasure them. Dr David managed to do my expansion while I was under. I was never huge. There is a quietness in how blessed I feel. And the special people around me. The love of family and friends and people I’ve only just met flowing to me and through me. My body is responding beautifully. Just a mild pressure, nothing more. I woke as I asked myself to do so. Comfortable and peaceful. I am so in awe of how special we are.  The special abilities we all have inside. How that deeper part of us responds to our gentle directions when we allow it to do so.

Miracles. Yes. They are possible. And they often come in the most beautiful and unexpected ways…

I did something really dumb this morning. Like every good working mum on school holidays I was multi-tasking big time. And by the time I had the kids in the car, I was of course running a little behind schedule. As is my custom, I turned the engine on to warm up three freezing kids. An overnight temperature of minus five or thereabouts. The windscreen was frosty. So heavily frosted that the windscreen wipers weren’t making any progress. And so I began to move the car into the sun to help it along. We live on a farm and the drive is huge so I have a lot of room to turn around. Only trouble was I’d parked in the opposite direction the night before. And so as I turned the car slowly, winding down the window so I could see, with the windscreen wipers working furiously, I was effectively driving blind. No big problem when I’m facing the other way. The bump and the breaking of glass alerted me to my grave misjudgement as I hit the low brick wall. No speed, but enough to smash the fog light and break the bumper. Bugger. A small expletive. I got back in the car after examining the damage and smiled at the kids. After all, what could I do except get over it. If only I’d been a bit more patient, I’ll remember this for next time.

And then it dawned on me. Another of those wonderful aha moments. With reconstruction imminent, I suddenly felt like the car was an extension of me. Easily repaired, no harm done. On the other side of cancer, I realised I now have a different perspective. And I laughed. It seems the fear and sadness is done.

I can’t quite believe it’s July already. And in ten days my next adventure begins. I feel my body recoiling a little, perhaps remembering what happened the last time I went under the knife. And the bits I left behind. I must confess I feel a little bit of apprehension. Opening up old wounds. The need to heal again. But it’s different this time. This time they are putting me back together. And today the overriding feeling is calm anticipation mixed in with a dash of ‘little girl’ excitement. In two weeks I get to grow my breast again for the second time in my life. How many people get to do that twice!

And I know the shift in how I feel is because I am surrounded by people who love me, people who are helping me prepare for this surgery. Mentally, physically and emotionally. And there’s so much we can do to prepare, isn’t there. I wonder how many people realise that choosing a doctor with a good bedside manner has been shown to minimise the need for pain relief? Important decisions, aren’t they. Because for a time our physical and emotional self is in their hands. And I want to know what sort of people they are. Positive or melancholy? Gentle or brash. I once had an anaesthetist sing me to sleep in Persian. Precious memories. Later tonight I’ll crack the lid on the jar of supplements to reduce the bruising and inflammation. Building my buffer I call it. Some people, of course, poo poo the idea. So I love it when a doctor actually asks me to take them. Then I really know I’ve got the right guy. Because nutritional support can work miracles with healing too. And I am choosing to be as gentle and kind on myself as I can this time.

And once again I’m spending time getting my head in the right space. Isn’t it incredible that when we’re under anaesthetic, our conscious defences are down and we can actually hear what’s being said? For better or for worse. So just as I have been taught, I now teach other people simple ways that protect us while under the anaesthetic. And I’ve heard it said that mental preparation has actually saved lives…

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